DeKALB – Sutton Smith came out of Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, Missouri, looking to make it as a running back.
Three years later, opposing running backs are probably wishing he still was in the Huskies’ backfield.
The Northern Illinois coaching staff moved Smith to defense during his redshirt season, and after a freshman year of playing sparingly in 12 games, he led the nation in tackles for a loss after Week 3 in his sophomore campaign. He’s a big part of a Huskies defense that’s allowing 16.7 points a game by opposing offenses and coming off a 21-17 victory Sept.16 at Nebraska.
“We wanted to be a run-stop and pass-stop defense,” said Smith, who plays the “Huskie” position for NIU – basically a hybrid defensive end and linebacker. “We really harp on stopping the run. This game (the win against the Cornhuskers), I think we had like 2.4 yards per carry. Our linebackers are hitting the gaps like no other, our D-linemen were getting on and off blocks. It was a very active game.”
Smith said he was at an early practice in his NIU career, when he was playing in the backfield and there was a fumble. The defense recovered and Smith made the defender who recovered the ball pay. The coaches noticed.
“Everyone is much faster, and stronger,” Smith said. “Then I kind of screwed myself in a way. There was a fumbled snap, and I went and tackled the guy who picked it up on defense, and the next day I was in Coach [Rod] Carey’s office being told I’m getting moved to defense. It was funny, but everything worked out for the greater good.”
Smith said that up until then, he was having a hard time standing out as a running back despite gaining more than 4,000 all-purpose yards his final two years of high school, earning multiple player of the year honors.
“I was coming off a good year at my high school, and they had a great O-line; they were great blockers, and they were huge, too, so even better,” Smith said. “I came here, and they told me I’d have the potential to get on the travel roster, and running back in my eyes, everyone has a chance. I got here and it didn’t turn out like that.”
Defensive line coach Brett Diersen said the move from running back to the line isn’t all that unusual.
“We’ve moved a couple guys from that spot,” Diersen said. “I think it’s just the ability to get the kid on the field. He’s taken huge strides in understanding defensive play. As a running back, you have the hips and you have the elusiveness to play in that spot.”
Carey said it’s been a small sample size so far this year – the team was off last week and next plays Saturday at San Diego State – but Smith’s hard work at learning the position is being rewarded.
“It’s only three games into it, so we have a long road to go,” Carey said. “But so far, I think we’re seeing the fruits of his offseason work as far as the dedication he’s put into getting stronger, getting bigger. But then also embracing the position, learning the position and diving all the way in.”
Smith entered last weekend tied with Ball State’s Anthony Winbush with 9.5 tackles for a loss this year, leading the nation. Smith also has a team-high three sacks, and his 15 tackles are the most on the team for a defensive lineman. He’s also recovered and forced a fumble this year, as well as two pass breakups.
Smith said leading the nation isn’t exactly something he pays a lot of attention to.
“It’s just another little symbol, I guess,” he said. “I don’t want to put a name on it. I just play hard, play fast. It’s what Coach Diersen really harps on. I just try to ignore a lot of that stuff. It’s outside noise really. To keep going means to ignore all that and know that more is out there for you.”
Both Diersen and Carey said Smith puts in extra time in the film room, trying to learn as much about his new position as possible.
Smith said it helps that he can get inside the mind of a running back, having been an all-state back three years ago.
“You kind of know how they’re going to run a little bit,” Smith said. “If a hole is a little foggy, you know they’re going to jump cut it out, or do some sort of extra play to get out, and do their own thing if there’s any sort of disruption. It just comes down to how fast you play. Don’t think out there, just react.”
Diersen said Smith can be even better than he is right now, and Carey said he expects a lot from the sophomore in the future.
“The expectations for him were to keep building – his body, his knowledge, his work ethic,” Carey said. “He has the ability to do anything you ask him to do. But you have to have those other things in there as well. My expectations were try to meet your ability, and I think he’s daily continually trying to do that.”